By Kevin Koczwara / Photos by Michael Piazza
All is peaceful at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The grounds are groomed and the noises of the outside world are cut off from the abbey’s main buildings, set back from the road and out of sight. There are only a few cars parked along the side of the driveway. Only a few people are milling about outside, but the world is silent. This is the way the monks of the Catholic Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists as they’re more commonly known, want it. But the noise from the outside world has started to creep in thanks to a modern 36,000 square foot brewery, hidden from plain sight in an area where only monks are allowed to go, on the abbey’s grounds. And, right now, they need the buzz.
At the gleaming, steel brewery the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey have begun brewing and packaging the only authentic Trappist beer produced outside of Europe, and people have noticed. Their Belgian style ale, with its golden hue and fruity accents, has become a sought after beer with rave reviews—it scores a 92 out of 100 on ratebeer.com and 91 out of 100 on beeradvocate.com. The attention has proposed a bit of a dilemma for the monks. They want to be isolated, but their beer has created a whirlwind of attention—CNN was filming a segment recently and Aljazeera TV has already done one. This also means, though, that their beer is good and that their plan to keep their way of life alive is working.
“The general thing is we are doing this to support a way of life that we hope to continue doing,” says Father Damian Carr, the abbey’s Abbot.
The monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey follow the Benedictine tradition of quiet prayer, isolation, and work. Their days are long, starting at 3:30am with vigils and ending after a prayer at 7:40pm. There is plenty of work to be done between the prayers throughout the day. With the isolation comes a need for revenue streams to support their lifestyle. There is no teaching or running of schools to support their lifestyle. They need to work to pay their bills and a brewery seemed like a logical business venture.
Traditionally, Trappists were farmers. The abbey in Spencer was purchased after a fire at the monks’ abbey in Rhode Island in 1950. The land in northern Spencer was a dairy farm when they bought it and they worked it until the dairy business became too costly. The monks then started raising beef cattle before moving on to raising pigs and then to harvesting hay. Eventually one of the monks started selling jams and they decided it was better to try and sell Trappist preserves—jams, jellies, and marmalades—than run a farm, so now they rent out some of their land to local farmers.
But time had come at the turn of the century for the abbey to review its revenue streams. They needed a new, more sustainable way to keep their way of life possible. The Trappist Preserves, which had carried the abbey through the latter part of the 20th century, couldn’t continue to be the abbey’s main source of income. Eventually, after passing up each idea presented, the group landed on building a brewery. But some of the brothers were unsure of the idea.
Father Isaac, who runs the brewery, and one other monk decided to call a hearing to try and win the group over. They decided to brew a batch of beer, package it, and give it to the board of advisors as a Christmas gift. The advisors were sold on moving ahead with the brewery.
So Father Isaac and his brother, which is what the monks call each other, started researching Trappist beer. They wanted to learn as much as they could so they reached out to Dann Paquette, owner and brewer of Pretty Things Beer and Ale project, for his help.
“First, he [Paquette] thought we were spoofing him and we weren’t really monks,” says Father Isaac. “Then we really showed up at the appointed time on the right day and it really was for real.”
Paquette and the monks met at the Publick House in Brookline and discussed beer in a special room—the monks cellar, a room covered with murals of Trappists and coats of arms of all the Trappist breweries. Paquette marveled the monks with his knowledge of beer. Then the beer came out. It was 11am and Father Isaac was nervous. He’s not a beer drinker (“before this project, for me, beer was Miller, Coors, Bud, lagers, and please excuse me,” he says). Before the brewery opened the monks drank beer or wine sporadically, only during major feasts, so drinking in the morning wasn’t something Father Isaac was accustomed too. He took a sip to be polite. He was shocked.
“It was delicious,” says Father Isaac. “It turns out that [the beer] was a St. Bernardus Abt 12 on draft. It was unbelievable.”
The abbey’s plan started taking shape after the meeting, but they wanted more help. They reached out to their brothers in Belgium who have been brewing some of the best beer on the planet for centuries.
Monks have been brewing beer since the Middle Ages. While the process has changed over time, monks still hold a legacy and are on the forefront of brewing trends. The Trappists didn’t let that tradition fade and their beer has long been sought after. But, until the Trappists banded together, breweries across the world would claim their beer was Trappist, hoping to grab on to the success that authentic Trappists like Chimay, Westmalle, Orval, Rochefort, and others had achieved. “Trappist” is not a style of beer. Each authentic Trappist brewery has its own distinct beer profile, but the term does bring a certain expectation and level of quality with it.
An authentic Trappist beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision; the brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery; the brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture and the income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds with the remaining income being donated to charity.
The Trappists in Europe were at first nervous of their American brethren. They didn’t know what to expect. They were afraid their brand might be diminished or somehow tainted. They’ve worked long and hard to gain the stellar reputation they have on the world beer stage and they didn’t want some novice beer brewers ruining it.
The monks from St. Joseph’s Abbey knew of the concerns and tried to ease nerves during their first visit to Belgium. Thankfully, after Isaac left Belgium, the Belgians decided it was best to help their American brothers and offer them guidance and advice.
The plan before visiting Belgium was to make a small start-up brewery in Spencer, to latch on to the craft beer movement. During the second visit to Belgium the plan changed. The Belgians had two key pieces of advice for their American brethren: brew one very good beer and build a state of the art brewery. The Belgians explained that not only do they have good beers that are well-respected, but they also invest in their brewery infrastructure, which keeps them ahead of their competition.
St. Joseph’s Abbey would have to start their infrastructure from scratch, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t invest in the best in beer brewing. So the St. Joseph’s monks decided to build a modern and almost entirely automated facility, changing their plans to fit a long-term vision for the next 50-100 years instead of a short-term vision, which had been how they had operated in the past.
The monks decided to build a modern brewery, complete with plenty of white walls, white furniture, computers, and stainless steel, with all the high-tech innovations they could afford. It’s semi-automated and requires little manpower during the brew process—most of the manpower is in the bottling and packaging department. The semi-automated system has little to no waste and has the potential to brew up to 400,000 barrels of beer—the brewery plans to brew around 4,000 barrels this year as it works out any kinks.
In most of my experiences in new breweries there is water everywhere, but at the Spencer Brewery there is little waste because the system is a closed, custom-fitted, stainless steel modern marvel. It’s a little startling at first. The brewery stands alone where forest once was, far from the road or view from the monastery’s main buildings. It does not fit the old-world aesthetic that runs through the monastery’s grounds. The monks are getting older and their numbers are thinning—they have around 60 monks living there currently—and they just don’t have the manpower or expertise to run a hands-on brewery. They’re training as many monks as they can to help out, but right now it’s Father Isaac and two other monks, who each spent six months in Belgium, running the operation with the help of a Belgian beer consultant they hired and a few non-monks who help with logistics and packaging.
Once all the planning was done, they still needed a beer. What they came up with was something subtle, but full of taste and aroma. It’s the kind of beer that Father Isaac enjoyed while visiting Europe; the kind that wasn’t overbearing.
“What I really liked were these humble but elegant, delicious beers served usually at the evening meal with really simple food like a salad and simple soup,” says Father Isaac.
The goal was to have a beer the monks liked to drink and that would, hopefully, lead to a beer that other people would like. That’s traditionally what Trappists breweries did, so Father Isaac and his team embarked on that journey.
“We gradually came around to the point; how did these Trappist breweries get started?” says Father Isaac. “It started by brewing what the monks would drink and then they went into different directions and I found that empowering working with my little group.”
Father Isaac gets emotional as he remembers, with tears welling up in his eyes, the first time the monks at the monastery drank the beer they came up with. He remembers the first batch of beer brewed at their new facility that they served. It was the last feast of the Christmas season, New Year’s Day, and after some issues with a kegirator, Father Isaac poured beer for his brothers.
“The non-beer drinkers were coming back for seconds,” says Father Isaac. “That was the moment I knew we could do this [build a brewery], but the personal goal was, could you do all this and get a beer the monks really could own, really like and drink? So this was the moment I said ‘wow.’”
Before the brewery, the monks only drank beer and wine on big feast days. Now they have a glass of beer with Sunday supper. Beer has become part of their life. It supports their lifestyle and it has brought them together. It looks like they have a good business plan for the future.
Spencer Brewery spencerbrewery.com
Kevin Koczwara is a freelance journalist in Worcester. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Narratively, The Boston Globe, The Globe Magazine and SBNation longform. He’s on Twitter and sometimes tweets, @kkoczwara. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.